Selling war to Americans has never been easy or simple – and rarely straightforward. Lincoln's address at Gettysburg, generally considered America's finest oration, fell flat at the time and was widely considered uninspiring. To avoid that fate, presidents calling the nation to arms have often resorted to overheated rhetoric, sly evasions, and downright doubletalk.
As President Obama warms up for his speech at West Point Tuesday night, intending to win support for an expanded Afghanistan war campaign from a skeptical, and in some cases hostile national audience, it's instructive to look back at how previous commanders-in-chief negotiated the tricky no-man's land between optimism and realism – between what the voting public wanted to hear and what the man in the Oval Office suspected was a harsh and unwelcome truth.
Sadly, it's the rare chief executive who can muster the courage to admit that the situation is grave, the impending costs staggering, and the outcome uncertain. The wartime leader who comes closest to this standard of honesty and forthrightness is . . . Harry Truman. But let's go first to Lyndon Baines Johnson.
"We don't want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys . . . and get tied down in a land war in Asia."
Amid a heated presidential campaign, President Johnson seemed to promise he'd stay out of Vietnam, in this instance during a speech at the dedication of the Eufaula, Ala., dam on Sept. 25, 1964. Six months later, having been re-elected, LBJ authorized the sustained bombing of North Vietnam and ordered U.S. Marines ashore at Da Nang. Within a year, 175,000 troops were conducting bloody search-and-destroy missions.
During the campaign, of course, Johnson also had been assuring some audiences that he would indeed hunt down commies in Southeast Asia. Here he is in an Aug. 12, 1964 speech in New York City before the American Bar Association:
"The United States cannot and must not and will not turn aside and allow the freedom of a brave people to be handed over to Communist tyranny. This alternative is strategically unwise, we think, and it is morally unthinkable.''
Johnson was running for re-election that year and, sadly, election campaigns do not seem to bring out the best in wartime presidents. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, speaking on Oct. 30, 1940 in Boston, a week before Election Day, offered this categorical vow to keep Americans out of the World War II:
"And while I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.''
FDR struck an understandably different tone 14 months later, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy,'' the president told his countrymen. Here, in his two-and-a-half page address to Congress
Dec. 8, is a warning of dire peril, of a long struggle ahead. (Roosevelt considered, but decided against, detailing the horrific losses at Pearl Harbor, virtually the entire Pacific Fleet and 2,403 American dead). But here also, a comforting assurance of ultimate victory:
". . . hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger. . . . As commander in chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. . . . No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. . . . With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God.''
In a similar vein, Woodrow Wilson famously declared his intention to keep the United States out of the madness of the war that engulfed Europe in the summer of 1914. In a White House message issued Aug. 19
, Wilson declared:
"The United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these days that are to try men's souls. We must be impartial in thought as well as in action."
In private conversations, Wilson warned that in order to avoid getting dragged into the conflict, Americans "must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.''
By the summer of 1916, it was clear that the United States was going to have trouble steering clear of the World War I, but Wilson stuck to his promise of neutrality and was re-nominated in St. Louis at a convention where the chant of the delegates became, "He kept us out of war!" Less than a month after his second inauguration, however, Wilson sent Congress a declaration of war. And by that summer, more than 2 million American doughboys were fighting on the bloody fields of France, sent there by President Woodrow Wilson.
More recent conflicts, thankfully, have been on a less grand scale, and presidents have sought to outline clear goals and costs. Usually they have failed to predict accurately. In the late fall of 1995, after three years of bloody fighting in Bosnia, President Clinton celebrated the Dayton Peace accords that promised to end the conflict under armed U.S. and NATO peacekeeping troops. In an Oval Office address
, Clinton said:
"Later this week, the final NATO plan will be submitted to me for review and approval. Let me make clear what I expected to include and what it must include for me to give final approval to the participation of our armed forces:
"First, the mission will be precisely defined with clear, realistic goals that can be achieved in a definite period of time. . . . Our joint chiefs of staff have concluded that this mission should and will take about one year."
Nine years later the last American troops left Bosnia.
President George H.W. Bush wasted no time in laying out America's goals when Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait at the beginning of August 1990.
Six days later, after the White House had dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups and thousands of troops to the Persian Gulf, Bush gave his formal war speech
to a joint session of Congress. But he carefully avoided the subject of war; instead, the confrontation was described as a diplomatic squeeze. There was no mention of what any military operation would cost.
Our objectives in the Persian Gulf are clear, our goals defined and familiar:
"Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait completely, immediately and without condition. Kuwait's legitimate government must be restored. The security and stability of the Persian Gulf must be assured. And American citizens abroad must be protected. . . .
"I cannot predict just how long it'll take to convince Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Sanctions will take time to have their full intended effect."
Bush, who had signed orders to dispatch a force eventually reaching half a million troops, ended with a thinly veiled kicker:
"We will continue to review all options with our allies, but let it be clear: We will not let this aggression stand."
On the eve of the second U.S. war with Iraq, a second President George Bush uncharacteristically sounded a note of gloom and uncertainty, perhaps to balance the prediction of one Republican pundit who predicted the fighting would be "a cakewalk.''
"A campaign on the harsh terrain of the nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict, and helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment."
But he went on with more familiar bluster:
"Now that conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive force, and I assure you this will not be a campaign of half measures and we will accept no outcome but victory. . . . We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail."
Just weeks later, Bush declared from the flight deck of the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln:
"My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."
We are still there, of course, just as we are still in Korea 59 years after Harry Truman dispatched the Army and the Marines to the Korean peninsula. So let's give the last word to Truman, who was stunned in June 1950 when North Korean troops poured across the border and began ravaging South Korea. After hurried war councils and a flurry of activity at the United Nations, Truman sent a 10-page (single-spaced) message to Congress
that is noteworthy in its bleak assessment of the war's status and blunt about what will be needed.
"The hard facts of the present situation require relentless determination and firm action. The course of the fighting in Korea thus far shows that we can expect no easy solution to the conflict there.''
He would need $10 billion immediately, Truman wrote. The anticipated cost of the war, Truman said, would require rationing, controls on credit, and (President Obama and House Minority Leader Boehner, take note) additional new taxes.
Americans "must expect a hard and costly military operation. . . . I shall not attempt to predict the course of events. . . . We will follow the course we have chosen with courage and with faith . . . with God's blessing we shall succeed.''